In-Congress field-trip: southern Utah Juniper-Pinyon Ecology

by Dr Casper Crous

On Wednesday, congress delegates were treated to an in-congress field trip across the beautifully diverse Utah state. However, because of the size of the world congress (more than 3000 people attending), there was a stunning 27 trips to choose from. Of course, choosing was a mess - they all looked tempting, like those irritating restaurant menu's, and as delegates eventually chose a trip, I can imagine a fair share of 'order-envy' being present.

Different FABI members did different tours. Unfortunately I cannot speak for them here, but I would like to share my trip to explore Juniper-Pinyon Ecology. (To access the right sites, we traveled 440 miles (>650 km) that day - not your average in-congress tour.) In Utah, Juniper-Pinyon (Juniperus osteosperma and Pinus edulis) woodlands are a prominent vegetation type of the mountain landscape. These ecosystems are notoriously sensitive to bad management practice, in that if left unburned for too long, they eventually become dense woodlands. This is akin to woody thickening in savanna habitats in South Africa, where fire is a key driver of environmental integrity. Furthermore, grazing by deer and cattle in the area exacerbates this situation, often leaving thick woodlands with little to no plant understory left. Alternatively, too many fires remove these trees from the landscape. In this trip, environmental managers from the US Department of Wildlife and the US Forest Service, amongst others, shared their experiences in how they are managing this problem. Through long-term research they have established an appropriate fire frequency regime, as well as some mechanical clearing regimes (to lower fire fuel for safety reasons in human settlements and road areas close to denser woodlands). Environmental managers can now advocate the appropriate management practice to land-users in the area. From an ecological integrity point-of-view, that is the gist of it; For further reading on this topic, there is a vast literature available online.

From a socio-economic perspective, the restoration of these woodlands is important for two reasons. Firstly, native Americans in the area used to heavily rely on Pinyon nuts for food. Sharing anecdotes from their youth, three Southern Paiute ladies described how the harvesting of pine-nuts from Pinyon was a celebratory affair for their tribe. One lady described how they would harvest the green (closed) cones, and to get the pine-nuts out, her father would dig a pit in the soil, lay the cones inside the pit, cover it with soil, and then scattered the hot coals on top. Some hours later they return to a giving pine cone. I can only imagine how good that had to smell, and taste. Well, we got to taste some Pinyon nuts which came from open cones. And they taste every part the passion spoken thereof. But as more and more trees were harvested or cleared to make space for cattle grazing etc., this tradition is now seen less and less.
Secondly, the Utahnians have a particular taste for venison, and the absence of the herbaceous layer due to fire suppression and over-grazing not only result in many animals dying, but they would also move toward greener pastures (literally). This then impacts the local hunting industries considerably.
Essentially, since these trees make up such a large part of the societal structure of the peoples living here - the better management of such landscapes is a valuable step forward to promote the ideal of a multi-cultural and multi-faceted community.